On Broad Creek Boy Scout Reservation in northern Harford County, thousands of trees cover nearly 1,700 acres. But only one ranks as the champion.
A 136-foot-tall Eastern hemlock, deep within the densest part of the forest, has earned national recognition. By reason of its height, girth and crown, the conifer has secured a place on the American Forests' 2010 National Register of Champion Trees. It has been found to be the largest example of its species in the country.
Its age, estimated at 310 years, makes the champion the granddaddy of the woods that line Broad Creek, a swift-flowing waterway that feeds the Susquehanna River.
"Our tree is among the oldest, largest-known living of its kind on Earth," said Michael J. Huneke, forest stewardship coordinator with the U.S. Forest Service, who certified the measurements.
It shares bragging rights as America's champion Eastern hemlock with an Alexandria, Va., tree. But as reservation staff like to mention, Maryland's entry holds a three-point edge over its co-champion.
"Its full, bushy canopy is so thick, you can only see a patch of sky," said Chris Castillo, a program director at Broad Creek, who often guides visitors to the champion.
He has placed his 5-foot, 4-inch frame against the tree and posed for photos to illustrate the hemlock's stature. And, he can recite its current measurements from memory: Its circumference is nearly 12 feet and its average crown width is 53 feet. And, despite its ripe old age, it is still growing.
"It is almost in a stream and so is constantly fed water," Castillo said.
The National Register of Champion Trees, published every two years, identifies and recognizes the largest of every species surveyed. It posted 733 champions and co-champions from 637 tree species in the United States. The public actually finds and sends measurements of the nominated trees to American Forests, the nation's oldest citizens conservation group.
The list has its roots in Maryland, which started the program to identify and recognize big trees more than 85 years ago.
"We picked it up and took it national," said Dan Smith, a spokesman for American Forests in Washington. "The program makes sure we don't cut down these trees and also provides us with a means of public education and conservation."
Florida leads the country with 99 national champions, but Maryland, with 23, is no slacker.
"For such a small state to have champions in the double digits is impressive," said Sheri Shannon, American Forests' program coordinator for global relief.
Shannon handles more than 2,000 nominations annually, often receiving dozens for one tree species. The Eastern hemlock is a relative newcomer to the list; an American beech in Anne Arundel Co. has led its category for 15 years. Only three trees, all of them growing in the western U.S., have remained on the list since it was established in 1940. The most renowned of the three, the sequoia dubbed "General Sherman" in California's Sequoia National Park, tops the list with the most points.
The list changes constantly, Shannon said. A tree designated champion often sparks a competition to find another that is larger. The live oak title has become a biannual tug-of-war between Louisiana and Georgia.
"Nominators are not happy if their tree is dethroned," she said.
But most of all, she said, the list serves as a tool that educates the public on the value of trees.
"This is a big program that looks at thousands of trees," she said. "What better way to get the public outdoors and appreciating the trees that filter our air, shade our water and even identify the places that are special to us?"
The list has spurred interest in trees and conservation efforts, but the Scouts at Bear Creek are well ahead on those fronts.
They have placed their portion of the forest and 400 surrounding acres in the Harford County Agriculture Preservation Program, safeguarding the land from development. Scouts have also joined efforts to eradicate pests, particularly the wooly adelgid, that would harm the trees.
The Eastern hemlocks may owe their survival to pesticide injections and a newly developed variety of ladybug that feeds on the wooly adelgid, an invasive, aphid-like insect that has wiped out much of the Shenandoah Valley hemlock stand.
The wooly adelgid attaches itself to the base of the tree's needles and sucks out the moisture. The dead needles do not regenerate and eventually the entire branch dies. When the bug first attacked, Castillo said, "The trees had so many white egg masses they looked like they were snow-covered."
The Maryland Department of Agriculture, with an assist from the Scouts and other volunteers, has been treating the hemlocks for five years. Last year, they released ladybugs engineered to survive the winter and increase in numbers.
"We have seen a marked decrease in the adelgid population and an increase in the health of the stand," Castillo said. "That snow I used to see is now a much rarer sight."
While it cannot compete with the renown of a sequoia, Broad Creek's champion hemlock is building its own reputation.
"I have brought dozens here to see it," said Jesse James, a camp manager and frequent hiker. "It's been the state champ for a while and now it's gone national."
The staff will proudly show off the champion to those willing to hike several miles into the forest with a guide. Castillo usually takes the yellow trail, a good hour's trek for even the hardiest hiker. The narrow path winds along Broad Creek, crosses several small feeder streams and climbs several steep hills. Along the way, the green shrubs and ground cover gradually thin as taller trees provide more shade.
"Hemlocks are shade lovers," Castillo said. "You can feel the temperature change by as much as 10 degrees in the main hemlock forest."
About halfway to the hemlock stand, hikers will begin to spot sapling hemlocks and tree cones much smaller than those of other pines.
Even though it is the tallest in a 60-acre hemlock stand that has never been harvested, "It's real easy to miss the champion," Castillo said.
He likes to wait until visitors are atop a hill, in the darkest area of the forest. Nearly everyone stops to catch a breath and then, he will say, "There he is. There's our champion."